Mises Wire

A Rothbardian Critique of Effective Altruism

altruism dictionary

The movement for effective altruism (EA) has grown in popularity since the late 2000s, largely due to the work of academic philosophers Peter Singer and William MacAskill, who also defined many of its core ideas. However, the actions and crimes of FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who was heavily involved with the movement, brought it wider notoriety.

The EA movement is constrained by its dependence on fundraising; its key representative organizations are all massive fundraisers. What its leaders say in public, therefore, must be ecumenical, which poses problems for researchers of EA. Effective altruism is often motivated by certain philosophical ideas—promoted in Singer’s and MacAskill’s books and discussed in the EA forums—but not all EA supporters believe in them, nor is doing so required for membership in the community.

For similar reasons, EA organizations give no official approval to any school of economics. Nevertheless, certain economic ideas are implicit in their practice: they claim to want to make the world a better place in the most effective way possible, and economics is the study of the effectiveness of human actions in achieving goals.

Researchers who want to study EA and evaluate the ideas behind its actions must make their own interpretations, and doing so may at least capture the most basic tenets of the movement. They will, however, never find a definition that applies uncontroversial to all supporters and only to them. Nevertheless, the movement’s ethical theory could be expressed by the doctrine of utilitarianism, and its economic theory by the idea that charity increases society’s aggregate utility or satisfaction of human wants.

Murray Rothbard, a key figure in modern libertarianism, had serious objections to both theories. He objected to utilitarianism as being ineffective in libertarian political action, believing it was arbitrary to consider the goodness or badness of only the consequences of acts and not the acts themselves. David Gordon notes that Rothbard’s point has been conceded by some utilitarians, who then revised their theories accordingly.

Rothbard also believed that it was arbitrary to seek the greatest good for the greatest number as opposed to smaller numbers of people. The idea he objects to here is a core tenet of utilitarianism, but Rothbard finds it damns the whole theory. Should, he asks, a society in which the majority of people hate a minority population of redheads be allowed to murder and generally mistreat the redhead contingent to please the greater part of the population?

Given that an action demonstrates a preference over another but not the degree to which it is preferred, utility cannot be measured in cardinal units such as the “hedons” or “utils” sometimes used by utilitarians. Similarly, comparing the utility of one person to that of another, as between the redheads and the nonredheads, is impossible.

Rothbard’s demonstrated preference challenges effective altruism’s notion that charity is the most effective way to satisfy human wants and make the world a better place. Someone who receives a charitable donation has only done so passively and therefore cannot show a preference for it, but someone who enters into an exchange to receive the good can show one. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that charitable action contributes to the satisfaction of human wants, unlike the production of and investment in exchangeable goods.

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